"You know what she wants to do?" spits Aunt Mattie bitterly at the aspiring Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) in William A. Wellman's 1937 picture "A Star Is Born." "She wants to go to Hollywood."
Standing before the Dolby Theatre at Sunday's Academy Awards, it's easy to think of Hollywood as a physical place of bricks and mortar. There's the theater, dressed up in red carpet and miles of gold beads. There are the roaring crowds in bleachers before a scrum of cameras. And there's Salma Hayek in her clinking lavender gown, gliding through like a Technicolor caryatid.
By midweek, all evidence of the Oscars will be gone. Hollywood Boulevard will be reopened to tourists and buskers. And the closest most of us will get to stars will be the ones embedded in the pavement.
Hollywood, it turns out, is an elusive concept.
And by Hollywood, I don't mean the Los Angeles neighborhood of roughly 78,000. I mean "Hollywood," the idea. Hollywood the stand-in for ambitions of fame. Hollywood, "the beckoning El Dorado ... Metropolis of make-believe," in the words of Wellman's show business movie. Hollywood, that place the resentful, like Aunt Mattie, pronounce with disgust.
Fame's fugitive qualities, however, don't stop almost 50 million tourists a year from chasing it when they land in Los Angeles.
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But how to visit a place that is an idea? How to touch fame, record it? And how to explain to out-of-town guests that "Hollywood" isn't a cinematic array of studios and sidewalk cafes brimming with movie stars, but a tourist strip of un-muscular men in droopy Superman costumes?
Los Angeles is not "Hollywood." (Only one out of roughly 48 Angelenos work in the entertainment industry, according to L.A. County's Economic Development Corp.) But for those who want to commune with celebrity, the city offers the illusion of access. And for the better part of a week, I commune with the seekers: visiting famous film locations, culminating in the most famous location of all -- the Academy Awards.
To get into the mood, I even take a TMZ Celebrity Tour.
"You'll be entertained for two hours and you'll see some celebrities!" says the young man who leads our group to a tour van with a license plate that reads "TMZ 1."